Southeast Asian maritime experts were close to endorsing a Philippine plan for settling a long-standing dispute over potentially oil-rich islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by six countries including China.
The experts gathered in Manila Thursday for a two-day discussion of the plan, which is seen an attempt by the Philippines to present a unified regional policy in confronting China. Beijing claims all the islands while the other countries claim them in part in a constantly bubbling dispute that has often led to regional tensions.
The meeting was limited to maritime and legal experts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China has reportedly protested against the meeting because it prefers bilateral negotiations with each claimant country.
A draft of the final statement to be issued after the meeting ends Friday indicated all the participants were inclined to support Manila's proposals.
The statement, obtained by The Associated Press, describes the proposal as "consistent with international law," and urges claimants to "explore the possibility" of delineating the disputed areas for joint projects.
A Philippine diplomat said that if ASEAN can forge a common stand, the bloc would then try to get China's concurrence. The proposal will make little headway unless China accepts it, but that seems to be a tough ask given that Beijing has refused to consider claims by other countries.
China has already questioned why ASEAN should deal with the disputes as a group when the majority of its members are not claimants, another diplomat told the AP.
The two diplomats said Beijing had also protested against the ASEAN maritime experts' meeting. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Only four ASEAN countries _ Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam _ lay claims to the region believed to be rich in oil. The other claimant besides China is its rival Taiwan.
The Philippine proposal includes delineating the disputed islands so claimants could demilitarize them and turn them into a "zone of peace, freedom, friendship and cooperation."
The Philippines says that not the entire South China Sea is disputed, but only the Spratly archipelago, which is sought by all six claimants, and the Paracel Islands, which are being contested by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Once the disputed areas are delineated, claimants can decide to withdraw their troops, replace them with civilian forces and undertake joint research projects and disaster drills to boost trust, according to the Philippine proposal.
However, segregating the disputed areas would be tough. The Philippines, for example, claims as its own a potentially gas-rich area called the Reed Bank, which lies off its western province of Palawan.
China, however, contests that claim, and two Chinese patrol boats tried to drive away a Philippine oil exploration ship from the area in March. The Philippines protested the incident as one of several intrusions by China into its territorial waters that reignited tensions in the first half of the year.
The dispute is so entrenched that claimant countries can't even agree on the names of the islands and surrounding waters. The Philippines calls the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea.
Resolving the dispute "may take centuries," acknowledged Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay while talking to reporters after delivering an opening speech to the maritime experts.